Solitary man

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 March, 2008, 12:00am

Past media coverage suggests he's a melancholic recluse and his whimsical stories sometimes reinforce that image. But in person, popular writer-illustrator Jimmy Liao Fu-pin comes across as amiable, relaxed and humorous.

'You probably don't see me as a low-profile person as we talk. I'm not shy talking about my work,' says Liao, who publishes under the pen name Ji Mi. 'I'm just a bit uneasy discussing my personal life. There's nothing special about me.'

The crowds lining up to view an exhibition marking a decade of his work would say otherwise. Liao's 30 illustrated stories for adults have sold five million copies worldwide and many have been adapted in movies and plays in Taipei, Hong Kong and on the mainland.

The Taiwanese author flew in last week to launch Jimmy One Decade Exhibition - Never Ending Story, and smiles as he recalls fans taking snaps at the show featuring original sketches from his illustrated tales, and fibreglass figurines drawn from favourites such as Turn Left, Turn Right and Then the Moon Forget. 'It's good to see my work is so close to readers.'

Liao, 50, says he's just like many people in the city: he finds joy in simple pleasures such as singing karaoke with his 11-year-old daughter and feeding the family cats with his wife.

His illustrations and stories, however, convey a sense of loneliness that touches thousands of people feeling alienated by big city life. It's a sensibility informed by his battle with leukaemia.

Diagnosed in 1995, Liao underwent six months of chemotherapy and his cancer went into remission. Nevertheless, depression and fear over his illness changed his outlook on life and launched him on a new career. Having worked in the advertising industry for 12 years, he quit his job as a designer in 1998 to become an illustrator and writer.

'I became more observant even of some very tiny things in life. Drawing became my therapy. It's the way I release my anxiety,' Liao says.

'At the time, I didn't think I'd survive until today; I thought my life was done. Yet I'm still alive. That's the greatest change in these 10 years,' he says. 'At the same time there's not much change about me. I work hard, live hard. Sometimes I work overtime, just like other busy folks in the big city.'

Liao released his memoirs last month to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his career. Jimmy and His Stories traces the experiences that shaped his personality, sources of inspiration and his creative process. 'Time flies, even faster than I can catch it,' says Liao with a typically lyrical turn of phrase. 'I'm happy that I've produced so many works in these 10 years. But for an artist, a decade is a short time. This is only the beginning of my career.'

The loneliness and anxiety that accompanied his illness are recurring themes in his work but he isn't constantly down in the dumps, Liao says.

'Living in a city, I always feel a sense of solitude. But I enjoy the time when I work alone. It's a beautiful solitude. I want to put such feelings into my works. I want to turn the loneliness into beauty,' he says.

His first two books - Secrets in the Woods which tells of a lonely girl's encounter with a rabbit, and A Fish That Smiled at Me about a middle-aged man who finds cheer in his solitary life after a fish smiles at him - are watershed works. '[They] mark a new chapter in my life. They connect me with the world. Without them, I'd still be in advertising.'

Fish, inspired by his time spent quarantined in a hospital ward when he felt he was 'living in an aquarium', was adapted into an animated feature that won an award at the 2006 Berlin Film Festival.

Liao says his foray into illustrated books for adults was serendipitous: he didn't realise the market existed when he started. 'When I drew, I only thought about myself. I wanted to draw for another 'me',' he says.

Turn Left, Turn Right (1999), Liao's first attempt at a love story, made him a household name. The romance about two lonely people who don't realise they are living next door to each other was inspired by his ruminations on everyday routine, including a neighbour who he never met.

In 2003 it was adapted by Hong Kong directors Johnnie To Kei-fung and Wai Ka-fai into a film of the same name, the first Chinese-language project to be produced by Warner Brothers.

'Liao's story is simple but conveys a strong mood. His freewheeling imagination gives a lot of room for our adaptation,' says Wai. 'The theme of fate and loneliness in the city strikes a chord with city dwellers. It's universal. Some comic works become outdated after a few years, but Liao's drawings and stories are timeless.'

Although delighted that readers relate to his books, Liao finds popularity has its downside. 'When my books attract media attention, I get stressed out,' he says. 'People say I became a success when Turn Left, Turn Right and Sound of Colours were turned into movies.

'Actually I felt frustrated because of the pressure,' Liao says. 'I only feel high when I'm fired up with creativity.'

Instead, Liao says he identifies more with the main character in Sound, a blind girl who ventures into the subway system. 'She wants to explore the world in spite of her fear. She misses home and feels lonely. She has a disability yet she is complete. I think she is me,' he says.

The broad appeal of his stories have led to translations in English, French, German, Greek, Japanese, Korean and Thai. This year he will venture into children's books in a collaboration with British author Joyce Dunbar. The Monster Who Ate Darkness, a tale about the friendship between a monster and a boy, is scheduled for release in October. 'The drawings for children will be sunnier. Children need love, warmth and hugs. Drawing for them is fun,' he says.

Few Asian illustrators win the commercial success that Liao enjoys. His illustrations are auctioned at Sotheby's and his fictional characters have spawned a merchandising industry. So does he worry that his work has become too commercial?

Liao laughs. 'Isn't it already very commercial to hold an exhibition in a shopping mall?' he says.

'When things are mass produced, more people can afford them. I think it's OK as long as we have a bit of imagination.'

He adds: 'We need KTV. We need friends, family and good food. My books are not necessities. They might not be as important as a brand-name handbag. But when you feel all these things aren't enough, you might want to flip a page of my drawings. It'd be nice if you're touched by it too.'

Jimmy One Decade Exhibition - Never Ending Story, 2/F lobby, Times Square, ends April 6